A warm and important human interest story is told in the full-length documentary Harry & Snowman, directed by Ron Davis, about a man and his horse, now in movie theatres. Because of its subject matter I was frankly not prepared to love it, but I did. Which proves once again the wisdom of stepping outside your comfort zone.
Harry deLeyer emigrated from Holland to the U.S. after WWII: In a brief passage he discusses his exploits as a teenager during the German occupation of Holland as a courier for the Resistance. But what he always loved and wanted most was continuing employment with horses, and when he and his wife started a good Catholic family of eight kids, all were involved in the horse business. Harry taught riding, both at an elite private school for girls on Long Island, and then at his own stables and riding academy. His own kids’ prowess was his best advertisement for the school.
Searching for a slow, working animal that would be good for beginners, Harry purchased the bedraggled Snowman at an auction in Pennsylvania for $80, rescuing him from the dogfood – or the glue – factory. As he befriended the horse and started training him to work with his student riders, he slowly began to appreciate that Snowman was capable of much, much more.
Cutting to the chase, Snowman became the most award-winning show horse of his day, winning national championships two years in a row at the most prestigious shows in Madison Square Garden in the late 1950s. After more than half a century, Snowman still holds the American record for the high jump.
His remarkable rise – he was called “the eighty-dollar champion” and “the Cinderella horse” – closely paralleled Harry’s own ascent, from penniless immigrant to world-class trainer and rider, in a sport that flagrantly celebrated wealth, class and privilege. Equestrian fans of the lowest social orders could look to this stunning example of success against all odds, and hold it up as an inspiration. Taxi drivers were quoted saying, “There’s even a chance for a little guy like me.”
The day came when Snowman had to retire. He was paraded around Madison Square Garden in a final viewing before his adoring public as “Auld Lang Syne” played. TV news coverage at the time reported that there was “not a dry eye in the house,” and by this time I was so hooked on the story that I sat there with a tear in my own eye. It felt good to be reminded of my own vulnerability to sentiment.
Horse and animal lovers, you’ll love it. Anyone else, you’ll love it. The trailer can be viewed here.
An earlier version of this review appeared here in PW on April 20, 2015, as part of a roundup from the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.